Federal Courts Weigh in on Texas Voter ID and Abortion Laws

The federal judiciary made two important decisions regarding Texas legislation this week that could prime the Supreme Court to weigh in on abortion and voter ID laws.  With both issues working their way up the hierarchy of the federal court system, the recent decisions regarding two Texas laws could have a significant impact on the American legal landscape.

Supreme Court Blocks Enforcement of Texas Abortion Law

The Supreme Court has issued an order staying portions of Texas’ controversial abortion regulation legislation, effectively preventing several of the state’s clinics from closing until the question of the law’s constitutionality is settled.  SCOTUS intervened to overturn a decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed the law to go into effect while it was still under review, putting Texas’ restrictions on hold for the period during which the case is pending.

Driven by conservative lawmakers, Texas’ statute placed several restrictions on abortion clinics that closed more than 80% of the state’s 41 clinic providers, primarily by enacting two requirements: 1) that all abortion doctors had admitting privileges to nearby hospitals, and 2) that all abortion clinics meet the medical standards of an “ambulatory surgical center.”  Although Texas officials have argued that the measures enacted in the law are designed to ensure women are safe during the abortion process, challengers have called the law an unconstitutional regulation on the practice and have pursued remedy in federal court.

Last November, the Supreme Court upheld the requirement that abortion clinicians have admitting privileges at local hospitals, allowing the Texas law to close over half of the state’s clinics.  When, or if, the second provision – that abortion clinics meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers – goes into effect, only 7 abortion clinics will be open across the state. In August, a lower federal court judge struck down the requirement this requirement, saying the provision made it unreasonably difficult for Texas women to get an abortion because many would not have a clinic within 300 miles.  The Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v Casey finds unconstitutional any abortion regulation that places an “undue burden” on women seeking to terminate their pregnancy, and US District judge Lee Yeakel called the legislation a “brutally effective system of abortion regulation” that could not meet the Planned Parenthood standard. 

While the case is pending appeal, the 5th Circuit decided to override Judge Yeakels immediate stay on the law’s enforcement, voting 2 – 1 to allow Texas to implement the law as it awaits appellate review. The Supreme Court disagreed, over the dissent of 3 Justices, and blocked enforcement of the law, allowing 13 clinics closed by the 5th Circuit’s decision to reopen while Judge Yeakel’s opinion is appealed by Texas officials.  As is custom in such circumstances, the Supreme Court’s order did not provide a reason for its decision, nor does it relieve the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals from weighing in on the constitutionality of Texas’ abortion law first.

Federal Appeals Court OK’s Texas Voter ID Law

Last week, I wrote about a federal opinion striking down a Texas Voter ID law because the legislation had a discriminatory effect on minority voters.  US District Court Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos found that the Texas legislation requiring voters present identification at the polling station created an “unconstitutional burden” on the right to vote, particularly on the more than 600,000 black and Hispanic citizens who lack the required ID's.  Texas officials argued that the voter identification requirement was designed to prevent fraud, however, Judge Ramos disagreed and found that the law was passed with “an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose” that kept minority voters from casting ballots.  Texas attorneys appealed Judge Ramos’ decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the higher court to grant a stay on Ramos’ order striking the law until its constitutionality can be fully reviewed.

While the 5th Circuit has yet to hear argument about whether or not Texas’ voter ID law is constitutional, the panel agreed that striking the law this late in the game would lead to a chaotic election, and placed a stay on Judge Ramos’ order.  Judge Gregg Costa, writing for the 5th Circuit appeals panel, emphasized that critical to the court allowing Texas to proceed with its voter ID requirement was the timing of Judge Ramos’ decision.  Costa stated the Court “should be extremely reluctant to have an election take place under a law that a district court has found, and that our court may find, is discriminatory,” but ultimately felt that concern about voter confusion over last minute process changes justified allowing the law to remain in effect.

The 5th Circuit’s decision will allow Texas election officials to require identification from every voter as is required by the state’s legislation, despite the fact that the law’s constitutionality is still unclear.  It is unlikely the appeal process will be complete before November’s election, meaning that the only way the voter ID requirement does not go into effect this year is if the Supreme Court again intervenes to reverse the 5th Circuit’s order as it did with Texas’ abortion law.

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